A young man's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk...and apparently, back again.

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Location: Denver, Colorado, United States

The details of my life are quite inconsequential, really. Summers in Rangoon...luge lessons...

Monday, May 31, 2010

Multinational Memorial Day

This evening I caught a somber Memorial Day ceremony at Camp Eggers, which included as a participant the widow (also military herself) of the slain Army captain after whom the camp is named.  I've been deployed for a few Memorial Day ceremonies before, and even seen participation by one or more U.S. allies, but this was by far the most global one yet in my experience.  Afghanistan's national anthem was played in addition to our own, and a NATO anthem stood in for our many partners in that alliance.  The roll call of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilians was a particularly poignant reminder of the price paid so far in this conflict, by some estimates now the longest war in American history.  I found it fitting that the evening call to prayer went out in a neighborhood beyond during the ceremony, and wondered how many of the longest- or most-deployed service members on hand even hear it anymore.  The following photos are from my vantage point in the back...I didn't have the best spot or a slick camera handy, but wanted to show the scene to you all back home anyway.

The Hindu Kush in the background, the hundreds of troops in working uniform in the foreground -- paused in the evening of another long day of work --serve as reminders that this isn't your usual beach weekend or neighborhood bbq Memorial Day.  In fact, the upside of the endless workdays are that there aren't many opportunities to dwell on what's missed in the holiday weekend back in the States.  More important than that to me is the peace I feel in knowing that those around me are here because they want to be here, making a dangerous part of the world safer.  The peace jirga (council) begins in the next few days, and most of NTM-A (NATO Training Mission -- Afghanistan) is hopeful that some agreements can be made which will lead to greater collective peace and security.  At the same time, everyone knows that the road ahead is no less fraught with pain and tragedy as it was yesterday or the day before that.  Just a few days ago, another newly-constructed school was destroyed in Khost (where I spent most of my last AfghaniDan deployment), denying 1,300 teenage kids an opportunity to learn.  That kind of news is always a bit heartbreaking and tests the resolve; I suppose the key is to believe that better sense and humanity wins out.

A more pressing problem for the government of Afghanistan right now is the insurgent takeover of a village in Nuristan and their renewed strength in Kunar province, another old stomping ground of mine.  While the long term objective of the people there is probably just to be left alone, the Taliban takes advantage of it for now.  Sitting in meetings with officials of the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of the Interior, I see signs of a government more capable now of confronting problems than it has been yet, and other signs that utter dependence will remain the state of affairs for some time to come.  There will be quite a few more Memorial Days in Afghanistan for our military forces, no matter what withdrawal start date is eventually announced.

Saved by the photography experts in the News Room! Here are some of their outstanding shots from tonight...

One more memorial-related thought before I call it a night.  My facebook "friends" may have already seen this link from a post there, but for those who haven't, I recommend this short story about one of the recently killed young Marines here in Afghanistan.  It's extremely well written, and gives a little perspective on a life cut way too short, and of the sacrifice made every damn day in parts of the country that most (of even those in Kabul) know nothing about.  Happy Memorial Day, everyone.

Remembering a Marine, Step by Step

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bagram bemused

(My latest transfer through there isn't current was a transit point two weeks ago, on my way from Kuwait to Kabul.  But I had the photos, and was thinking about the place, and remembered that the day I arrived in Afghanistan for my second tour here was the 14th anniversary of my commissioning as a 2nd Lt in the Marine Corps.  So I figured I'd pat myself on the back...)

Mud, busy traffic, vehicles parked everywhere, and buildings make of a super-sized version of other U.S. camps in the 'stan. I didn't miss this place one iota.

What can you say about a former Soviet base you can wait around for days and days, wondering how on earth we actually get anyone or anything where it needs to be?  If you manage to find an advocate who has a good hookup with those who hold power over the manifests, you might get out in a relatively timely manner, as I did thanks to a smooth-talking corporal.  Only a day's wait!  If not, you'll be in suspended limbo and required to stay put...with your four bags worth of gear, your body armor & kevlar helmet, and your dreams of a bed sometime in your future.  I'll leave it to my new friend Chris from pre-deployment processing, following me out here by a few days, to succinctly describe the big base alternately known as the Black Hole...

"I have been rotting at Bagram waiting for a flight. This place is a zoo and nobody seems to be doing anything. I can't wait to get out of here."

The one good thing about the Bagram "terminal" 24-hour coffee at the USO next door.  Named for the great Pat Tillman, it has an appropriate wall friend Joanne, who named her baby boy Tillman in his honor, will likely appreciate this the most!

When back in the metal seats of the waiting area, there is less inspiring stuff to look at.  Stickers, mainly from units who passed through years ago.  Some random ones turn out to be pretty amusing though...

This had me saying "No...Way!" for a reason.  Years ago I bought a large bottle of Arrogant Bastard beer simply for its name, its label depiction of a devil hoisting a beer, and its taunting description...and that description still makes me laugh.  I guess they market it in Poland now, based on this sticker.  But here is the writeup (in Englishsky) that always suckered me in...

There is just something about embarking on a six-month dry deployment that leaves me wistful for the taste of a cold beer...just one!  I realize that between this and the wine bar post, you may be drawing a conclusion, but I'm just a regular guy who enjoys the simple pleasures of life, and beer and wine happen to rank pretty highly on that list right about now.

This was a purely staged photo, in order to represent what I wish I was doing at the time...sleeping.  Immersed in Rory Stewart's "The Places In Between" and my dying-battery ipod, I did reflect on the fact that time spent transiting is not all that bad.  The book is an outstanding cultural resource on Afghanistan, by the way -- a young Brit walks from Herat to Kabul in the Winter of 2002 (immediately following the fall of the Taliban) and gives his insights from along the mountainous way.  I highly recommend it.

These Poles figured out how to pass the time in their own way.  Witness the peril of the Black Hole!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A day in the life: Transient.

A word on transit within the Area of Operations...a primer, if you will, for those that have never had the pleasure.  Let's say for purely hypothetical sake that you needed to fly from a notional desert airfield in the Gulf, serving as a major air transit hub, to another major transit hub located in a notional war-torn central Asian nation's capital region.  Your initial feeling is a hopeful one...the reception cell has picked you up at the international airport, found you some temporary billeting, and signed you up at the 'terminal' for Space-R (reserved) travel on the next manifest.  Imagine then that a couple of days creep by...each one filled with checking and re-checking your place on the list, and hoping to hear your name called at each roll call only to learn that either the flight has been canceled or that it is too full to take a single passenger.  Despair sets in as you learn that others have been there for five days trying to reach your same destination (they may not call it a "surge" in HQ or in DC, but trust us, it's a surge...the meaning of the word doesn't change just because of some implication related to the other war).

Hi ho, hi's off to another-long-ass-wait-in-a-tent we go...

Then the miracle've made the short list of names allowed to board the next cargo flight passing through!  High fives with the others who've made it, shrugs and sorry's to those who didn't make the cut, and off you go to drag your 200 lbs worth of gear from your tent to the area where they will be "palletized": stacked into a massive pile atop a crate pallet.  Waiting time follows in the terminal, as you hesitate to run across camp for a decent meal (you are not permitted to leave the immediate area or you may miss your call), and a few more unexpected hours tick by.  No one tells you why the plane isn't there...rumors abound of mechanical difficulties and re-routing, then eventually enough pestering gets the grumpy civilian behind the counter (think: DMV) to inform you that a "crew rest" issue has caused the 5-hour delay.  Finally, you line up to get your IDs back, line up again to board the buses, sound off on one roll call after another, board the bus, take your seat, drop your head down -- it is late at night now, after all -- before hearing the shouts to get back off the bus.  Yes, some extra crasher has thrown off the numbers and needs to be removed.

The fabled pallet. "Sir, can I help squash your bag into this mess, only to tear it apart later?" (I was helping pull straps literally 30 secs before taking these pics, so I'm allowed to laugh...)

Literally drawing up a list of names to be eliminated while on the tarmac, with the bird sitting there directly in front.

For some, this is the only way to deal while waiting for the 12th time to find out if you get to fly or not...

Once that issue is straightened out, it's back onto the buses, count off once again, roll on the airfield, debark the buses there, and line up on the edge of the tarmac...only to learn that the weight was recalculated, or underestimated, or something.  Now 20 of you must be removed in order to await the next flight.  The clown music begins again, the process is hashed out over much grousing and gnashing of teeth, your name is called as one to stay behind but then not called in the revised version...and you get to board the cargo plane.  Hopeful times again!  Another hour is spent jammed into the plane as the pallet is picked apart in order to remove gear for those not now taking the flight, and then loaded onboard itself.  Eventually, somehow, someway, the engines do crank up and the C-130 begins to taxi.  Your 5+ hour flight has begun (!), and the sun will be up before you get there.  If you can sleep with your knees jammed into another's pair, your body armor plate jabbed into your back, and so on, you've at least got that goin' for ya.  If you're me, and once again can't sleep on flights, well're outta luck, pal.

What do flight crews dream about...when they dream a little flight crew dream?

The good news is that you'll land one step closer to (and in the same country as) your destination.  The bad news?  You've got to play this game again at the big base in order to get to the next stop.  As the late great Mitch Hedberg once said when suggesting non-easy payments by mail... Good luck, f***ers!

"Mountains! That's good! That means we're practically there, right?"
"Sure...or, in another far more accurate sense, no. No, we're not."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Camp Life, Kabul

 Just added photographic accompaniment to this update...not of the base itself, but of my first convoy through the streets of Kabul, from the airport.  I'm jumping ahead here, then filling in the gaps.  Cool?

Today was my first Friday back in A-stan, which here at Camp Eggers means a light day if work permits...a day to do some laundry, spend a chunk of time reading with some coffee, sleep late and re-charge the batteries (not that my newly-arrived butt needs re-charging!).  I still took advantage of that particular privilege though.  For one thing, no amount of military service has converted me from a night owl to a morning person, and for another, the two all-nighters spent traveling earlier this week still left me bleary and far from 'caught up.'  I don't take my time easing into a job or location; I do everything possible to hit the ground running, and some of my new crew here were happy to oblige.

The net result is that before I even had an e-mail account created, I'd been out to the Ministry of Defense for a half-day, the Afghan National Civil Order of Police (ANCOP) compound for another half-day, and the U.S. Embassy for a meal and a quick look around tonight (they are livin' LARGE, by the way!).  I went for the pleasant and informed company, and to get out of the camp any chance I get, but must admit that it's simply fun to walk around saying "Oh, I just had dinner at the embassy."  Like I'm a rare foreign service officer or an NGO coordinator in Nairobi rather than one of a couple thousand uniformed military at a camp in wartime.

So what am I doing, anyway?  Good question, (Dad).  I'm here to supervise the mentoring of the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior in their public affairs operations.  The leadership of the Afghan National Army in particular seems to highly value the importance of information, and that philosophy extends to some of the other agencies...but it has never been much in their model to share info, either with each other or up/down the chain of command.  Some hardworking people have been growing this particular mentoring program from nothing, and now I join the surge of new trainers to expand that effort.  Mentoring is the focus of my command, NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, and truly can be considered the main effort of the Coalition's campaign now.  It gives me a good feeling to know that most of those I encounter or just pass by each day in this cramped little base are here to train and mentor Afghans as well.

Speaking of this camp and its occupants, there is quite a diverse population.  Although the Army has the numbers advantage (as always in joint commands), there is decent representation from the Navy, Air Force and even my own Corps...far more in each case than I saw four years ago.  More fun than picking fights with the other services, though, is learning to identify the various camouflage patterns of all the other nations represented here...the Canadians, British and Australians being the most common, but by no means the only ones.  Here and at the base attached to the airport, I've seen Poles, Germans, French, Romanians, Bulgarians, Dutch, Koreans, Belgians, Croatians, Albanians, Czechs, Estonians, Lithuanians, Spaniards, Turks, Greeks and Slovenians.  The Italian Carabinieri is everywhere, as they are working full-time to train the ANCOP force.  But most ubiquitous where I am are the Mongolians, whose heavily armed presence helps dissuade any potential attackers (seriously, these guys look ready for battle).

I look forward to writing more about what I do and what I get to see, as it's already been an eventful first few days here, and posting a ton of photos.  In the spirit of the paisanos I chatted with today, Ciao!

 "Hey, fancy U.S. Marine, where you think you're goin'?"

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Heat. Sandstorms. Kuwait.

 Before I describe a slice of life as it currently stands here in the transient way station in the Gulf, some scenes from the drive from Kuwait Int'l Airport to tent city in the desert...

 Futbol, anyone?  

 Kuwaiti dress...modern and traditional mashed together, seemingly always.  Along the highway was an almost-endless stretch of very new construction, featuring numerous examples of what I can only assume is the Kuwait version of the McMansion.

Weather can be such a mind-bender.  My home these days in Colorado -- where I've lived for one Winter anyway -- received another few inches of snow last week, as I left coastal NC for this deployment.  And though it was definitely warming to beach temperature "down east", with Summery, muggy days in the 80's, it's a whole 'nother ballgame in a place like Kuwait.  It's an oven here.  Sure, it's not quite the blast furnace level to which this camp's weather escalates by July, but it's still an awful lot like an oven at least.  It's clearing 100 degrees easily already, and that Gulf humidity just hangs in the air day and night.

Shout out to Singapore!  (Middle flag above, people.)  My childhood home and current home of my cousin must be lending an assist around here, as I see its flag represented around camp.

Apparently it's sandstorm season, and the difficulty of landing in them has delayed or canceled a bit of air traffic around these parts lately.  A minor sand squall yesterday renewed my appreciation for all those doing long stretches of duty here, or even more so, Iraq.  I think of bedouins or other desert inhabitants every time I'm crossing a camp like this, squinting and trying to remember to keep my mouth shut (no easy task for a loquacious Irishman, mind you) while sand pelts everything.  It gives this camp, comprised almost entirely of tents of various sizes and floodlights, an even more pronounced industrial-yellow hue than it already displayed.

Then there is the most globally ubiquitous presence of all...the beacon (literally) that illuminates above an otherwise unremarkable skyscape of fluorescent light, bugs and sandblown dank air...

Now don't confuse me with those patronizing it...I'm getting along with the chow hall alright.  The return route might be a different story, so no guarantees there.  Instead I sink a daily allowance into coffee and wi-fi access here at the Green Bean.  The camp may be a sand pit, but this is not bad at all...

Here is a quick game of contrast.  First, still air.  Next, blowing wind.  See if you can spot a difference.

The objective when you're catching the bus to your flight and then getting on the bird is to not let your gear join this collection...

Signing off...nighty night from Kuwait tent city.